James Credle was born in 1945 in Mesic, a small town on North Carolina’s eastern shore. After graduating from the all-black Pamlico County Training School in 1962, he moved to Newark, New Jersey, and found work with his aunt and uncle at a veterans hospital. James served as an Army medic in Vietnam from 1965 to 1967.  During a gunfight in Tay Ninh Province, he was wounded in battle, yet somehow managed to help evacuate other injured soldiers. For his bravery and service, he received a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star with a “V” for Valor, the Vietnamese Cross for Gallantry, and an Army Commendation Medal.

Following Vietnam, James enrolled in Rutgers University-Newark.  On his way to a sociology degree, he started all four years and served as captain twice for Rutgers-Newark’s basketball team the Scarlet Raiders. Off the court, he joined the Black Organization of Students (BOS) and Tau Kappa Epsilon Fraternity. In February 1969, with other members of the BOS, James supported the 72-hour occupation of Rutgers’ Conklin Hall by two dozen students, to demand better access and opportunities at Rutgers-Newark for minority students, staff and faculty. Today, Rutgers-Newark consistently ranks as one of America’s most diverse universities.

After graduation, James took a job as the director of the Rutger-Newark Office of Veterans Affairs. In 1976, he was promoted to the position of Assistant Dean of Student Activities. Over the decades, James has held multiple leadership positions in service to veterans, including as vice chair of the Agent Orange Commission for the State of New Jersey. He helped found the National Association of Black and White Men Together, the Newark LGBTQ Center, and served on the Board of the Newark Pride Alliance.

James is a self-proclaimed sports nut, and also enjoys cooking food from all over the world for friends, family and colleagues. In the early morning hours of October 21, 2013, the first day that same-sex weddings were legally sanctioned in New Jersey, James and his partner Pierre Dufresne were married by Newark Mayor and U.S. Senator-elect Cory Booker at a service at Newark City Hall.

OUTWORDS interviewed James on a sultry day in August 2016, in the light-filled apartment he shares with Pierre. African artwork, musical instruments and curios bore witness to the stories James shared, and to his long, courageous journey.






Mason Funk: All right, do me a favor. Start by telling me your first and last names and spelling them, please.
James Credle: First name is James Credle, last name is Credle, J-A-M-E-S C-R-E-D-L-E.
Mason Funk: Okay. When and where were you born?
James Credle: I was born in Mesic, North Carolina, February 7th, 1945.
Mason Funk: Okie dokie. Tell me a little bit about the town where you grew up. Tell me a little bit about Mesic.
James Credle: [00:01:00] Mesic is located on the east coast of Carolina. It's about 23 miles. The largest city is New Bern. More people would know about Wilmington and the Cape Hatteras, which is 100 miles from there, but it's along the east coast of North Carolina. A town of about 200, 250 people. No stop lights then, no stop lights now. It's one of those towns where people just drive through and would never notice that it's a town. I grew up in Mesic during the time of Jim Crow laws, so that had dominated my early upbringing in the sense that we went to segregated schools. So we would bus past the white school into the Pamlico County High School. We would bus into the Pamlico County Training School, which was the black school or school for black students.
And whenever we went to New Bern or any of the larger towns, you always saw the signs that said colored only. When you went to the bathroom, when you went to have a meal at the counter, if you went to a department store and if you bought clothes, you paid the same price as anyone else. But if you tried to eat at the counter, you would not be able to eat there. You would have to go in the back of the counter and they would take your order back there. You couldn't sit and eat at the counter. If you went to the bus station, there was white only places where you could go for the bathroom. If you went to go to the bathroom, they're white only. If you wanted to go to ... Also, part of that was the colored only bathroom was not inside the bus station. It was out. It was like an outhouse. The same thing with the water fountain. Everything was always less quality in terms of growing up and experiencing the real impact of the Jim Crow laws.
Mason Funk: Tell me a little bit about your family.
James Credle: [00:03:00] I'm from a family of 14, 3 passed when they were very young. It's more of a family of 12, except for one sister who died when she was 6 years old. What I remember most about her was that we would, my grandmother took care of her and she was never able to speak or walk so we had to take her to our grandmother before we went to school. When my grandmother couldn't take care of her when my parents were at work, we would rotate so that we wouldn't miss a certain number of days out of school. Each of the kids, the olders in the family would take care of Cynthia, my youngest one. My mother worked what we called day work. It's $5 a day she was paid for military families. They would give her clothes, and shoes, and stuff like that, cast offs, and foods sometimes. That was beneficial to the family because we were poor.
The thing about that in terms of being poor, we didn't think of ourselves as poor because we did have food on the table. There was always a family who was less well off than us, so what we grew up with was the idea that we were not the poorest. We didn't think of ourselves as poor. It was that we didn't have as much as other people, but we did have food on the table and that was the thing that helped us survive.
It's very, obviously, the church was the center of our lives growing up. The church,Mount Olive Baptist Church, I grew up in the church. I grew up singing in the choir, which a lot of young men did at that age and that stage in our lives. The church was a centerpiece of growing up. For me though, early on, I knew I was gay or I felt that ... There was no such thing as gay. I knew I had feelings for men or boys that was different than was for girls. In fact, I often would talk, I would often hang out with the girls and we would talk about how cute the boys were. That seemed normal for us in terms of that because we were young and all of that.
What I remember most about that was that nobody seemed to, at least the girls and I didn't have any problem with that. No one seemed to be hassled by that. But I knew there was something in church that I learned early on that man does not lie down with man and that was an abomination. I had problems with that notion of that because it was natural for me in terms, I didn't have any trauma in my life that would cause me to think the way that I did. It was just natural that I felt that way about men or boys. Didn't mean that I hated girls or I didn't, in fact, love women and love my family and all of that. It's just a natural affection. So I had problems with the idea of that, that something was wrong with me if I had these feelings.
Mason Funk: Let me interrupt you. You were, I don't know if it was conscious or unconscious, but you could kind of put it together that when they said it was an abomination, you could tell that it was natural.
James Credle: [00:07:00] Yeah. To me it felt natural and I always felt that way about it. Never had any problems with it. But I also had a problem with the church in the sense that we would go to church and we were being told that, as far as blacks were concerned, as far as our status in life, we accept and work through where we were at. To just accept that and do the best you can. Then you would get your rewards in heaven if you were a good Christian. I had problems with that because I knew that there was, right across the river from where we lived, a white family was in the middle of town. There was a rich white family that lived on land right across the river from my family house. Often wonder, well, they can be rich and all of that and they will go to heaven, why do we have to wait to have that? Why do we have to wait to get our salvation and they can do both, they can be rich here and go to heaven as well?
I also had a problem with the fact that, in the black church, there was this white Jesus. I had real problems with the fact of, why would there be a white, blue-eyed Jesus? Why was that also something that we would look up to when we looked around us and white's were treating us as less than human? At a very early on age, these things were trouble to me in terms of my questioning all of that. I was known as a smart child, you might say. I was, growing up, I was moved from a higher grade, I skipped one grade because of my acumen as far as education is concerned. I skipped, they almost skipped me twice but they felt that, at some point, that I was too young to be and to small to be moved up too fast to be with the kids that were older than I. They decided that, no, we wouldn't take the second step. I did move an extra grade, so I graduated when I was 17 as a result of that.
Mason Funk: Right. These thoughts you had about religion, you just told me you were known as a smart kid. Did you voice any of these questions? Did you voice like, why do we have to wait for our reward when the white people don't? Why is Jesus white? Did you have the audacity to ask your mom?
James Credle: No. No, I didn't have the audacity to ask anyone about that. It was just questions in my head, in my own mind.
Mason Funk: Tell me-
James Credle: On my own mind about it.
Mason Funk: Sorry, let me interrupt you for a second.
James Credle: [00:09:00] Okay, sorry.
Mason Funk: Just if you can say, "I didn't have the audacity to ask, to voice any of these questions I had about white people." In other words, let me know what you're talking about when you say you didn't have the audacity to question it.
James Credle: Oh, okay.
Kate Kunath Will you take a wipe too?
James Credle: Okay.
Mason Funk: In other words, just in case someone didn't hear the first part of what you were saying, just let us know what thoughts you're talking about when you say you didn't have the audacity to voice them.
James Credle: [00:10:00] My thoughts and all of these things are from the feeling that I had about my sexuality, from the feelings about what was going on in church with the issue of being less than, and all of it that was the sense that we were being seen as less than. I was questioning why were we being seen as less than, but I never raised that question with anyone in power or anyone who had any power because I didn't feel empowered to ask those kinds of questions. I knew there was a question in my head, in my mind. My father, when I would get, and I had some resistance about it because at times, particularly with my father, when he would try to chastise me, he would say to me, "There go that turkey strutting again." Because I knew better than to challenge him in that way, in terms of overtly challenging him, so I would throw my head up and walk away sometimes. He called me a turkey strut with my head high. That was my way of resisting that.
Growing up, early on, I used to love playing football. We didn't have a football team, but guys would go out and play football. As I grew up, I loved playing football because I loved the idea of tackling the guys, and throwing them down, and having them all crawl on top of me, all that stuff. That was fun and I enjoyed that. Early on, I learned that sports could be my way out of a lot of stuff because a lot of the issues of growing up for me, in terms of developing a sense of my own manhood, came from the guys around me who would treat me, because they called me little puss and there were not the fag and stuff that we have now. Then it was they called me little puss, meaning that I was a little girl to them. So sports became the way of challenging that for me and I became the best football player and later on, the best basketball player in my town, as well as the best student.
It was, for me, a way of getting around all the negativity was becoming better than anybody else. That was sort of how I dealt with my own challenges around these issues.
Mason Funk: [00:13:00] Great. Was it even conceivable ... One of the points of this project is taking us back to a time when the realities of today, like marriage equality, were inconceivable. But I wonder if on the topic of race as well, in this era, the idea of civil rights, the idea of equality, the idea of a black president, the idea of all these ideas that were somewhat used to, not entirely. Was that just inconceivable, the idea that you would try to alter the social structure and really change this system? Or did you have some notion ... I guess what I'm asking is, culturally, was it inconceivable and then, for you was it inconceivable or was it possible?
James Credle: For me, we're talking about the late '40s, '50s, when I was a teenager. None of those things-
Mason Funk: None of what things?
James Credle: [00:14:00] None of the possibilities of becoming a president, thinking of myself, I didn't know what gay meant. All I know is I had these feelings for another man, but I never acted on it. I never felt the need to, I never felt that I was in a situation where I would feel comfortable acting on it, so I never did. I knew that these feelings were very intense.
My real thought was, how do I get out from this situation? How do I get out from this society or this town? That was my real thought. How do I get away from this? That was my real goal at the time, was to get away from this. That, to me, was the possibilities, to get away from this small town, get away from this racist situation, and allow myself to grow. That became the idea for me. It wasn't any ideas of possibility for being a positive gay person because I didn't know what gay meant. I didn't have any understanding of that. I didn't have any books that I could have read that was around or anything like that. This was a situation where even having any kind of book positive about blacks in America was not possible growing up. The teacher taught us to basically learn all the things that the whites wanted us to learn.
Mason Funk: Was your teacher black or white?
James Credle: Black. They were all black.
James Credle: It was a black school and a black town and all of that.
Mason Funk: All the faculty.
James Credle: [00:15:00] Yeah.
Mason Funk: Nevertheless, they just taught you, as you said, this was the system. This is how it works. You just shut up and put up and then you'll get your reward in heaven.
James Credle: Being educated was important. That was one thing they taught us, that being educated.
Mason Funk: Have a sip and then carry on. Maybe just blot down your forehead.
James Credle: The most important thing was having a education.
Mason Funk: Start that idea fresh. The most important thing ...
James Credle: The most important thing was, from my teachers, and from my parents, and the people who had a impact on my life, was to get an education.
Mason Funk: How did they think that education was going to affect your life in a positive way? It may seem obvious, but what was the benefit of having an education?
James Credle: [00:16:00] Wellfor one thing, it would give me the opportunity to get a decent job. My father worked as a part-time carpenter and my mother was, as I said, day work. When I grew up, we helped to supplement the family income by working in the fields. Early on, we picked cotton. That was very early on when I was very young. Potatoes, white and sweet potatoes, corn, cabbage, and because we lived near the water, I also worked in the crab factory where we processed crabs as a way of helping the family income. All of the family did that when they got older until they graduated from high school. It was a process that we all moved out as soon as we graduated. We all moved out or moved away from the town and moved, mostly, to larger cities. My older sister moved to New Jersey. Two of my older sisters moved to New Jersey. My oldest sister got married and she moved to Virginia. My oldest brother moved to Boston. We all moved out of that area and that was the key thing, get away, get out of that environment.
Mason Funk: Now, you yourself chose to come to Newark. I think I read the beginning, you had an aunt and uncle here. Tell me about your decision to move, to leave and come to Newark.
James Credle: [00:18:00] When I graduated at 17, I wanted to, I had scholarships to go play basketball at North Carolina A and T. I really wanted to go to North Carolina. That was my favorite team and that's where I wanted to go, but at that time they were not integrated. When I moved to Newark, I moved to Newark because my sister, Marge, she went to Shaw University. And she came to Newark because my aunt and uncle lived here. She found day work for white families where she took care of their kids. It was one way that she could come here, work, save almost all of her money because she then always had a live-in situation. Then she could use that money to go back home and go to Shaw University and she graduated. So I used that as a model that I would, because she was four years, five years older than I was. I used that as a model for me. I would come to Newark. I would work, save my money, and then go back home and go to college.
But in the process of coming to Newark and getting a job, I first worked with my aunt. My aunt and uncle worked at Lyons Veteran Hospital as nursing assistants. I came and I actually forged my age then because I was 17. I forged my age so I could be 18 in order to work there. I worked at the Lyons Veteran Hospital as a nursing assistant and my aunt and uncle helped me get the job. I was saving my money, except that my family needed money. Whenever they'd need money, then I would send my money to them. And before I knew it, it was 1965 and I was being drafted into the military.
Mason Funk: Okay. Let me just check my notes here real quick. See if we skipped anything that I wanted to ask about, and then we'll move on.
Kate Kunath If I ask a question, just answer to Mason so you keep your eyes on him. I just want to follow up the question about the basketball. Did you get a scholarship and had to turn it down? Or you wanted to go there but couldn't go there because it wasn't integrated yet? That wasn't clear.
Mason Funk: [00:20:00] Yeah. You were offered a scholarship to North Carolina.
James Credle: I was offered a scholarship to go to North Carolina A and T. When I go to Newark and I started saving my money, I decided that I would not take it up on the scholarship. It was a second choice anyway to me because I didn't really want to go there. I wanted to go to one I considered to be a better school. I just delayed the idea of going to school. That was when, I guess you might say it was fortunate that I was drafted, in a way, because I could use the GI Bill to go to college and that's what I did.
Mason Funk: Got you.
James Credle: [00:21:00] My family was, at the time, as I said, was very important to me. I felt that I was the one person who could help out. My older sisters and brothers were all married and I was not. I had more resources than they did, so rather than save my resources to go to college, I felt it'd be better to help my family and my younger siblings at home.
[ Mason Funk: You had more resources because you didn't have a family of your own and you were old enough to work.
James Credle: Right.
Mason Funk: Okay. In 1965, you got drafted. Tell me about that first time. Tell when you became aware there was this war going on, that you might be drafted, and then about the process of actually being drafted. Essentially, what was the first you heard of this, of the war in Vietnam.
James Credle: I knew about the war because I was working at the-
Mason Funk: Remember, say the war in Vietnam.
James Credle: The war in Vietnam. I knew about the war in Vietnam-
Mason Funk: Sorry, without me talking. Just start fresh. Okay, go ahead.
James Credle: [00:22:00] Okay. I knew about the war in Vietnam because I was working at a veterans hospital. At the time, I got to learn near the, after the two years I was there, we began to get veterans at Lyons who had been to this place called Vietnam. I know that was very early on, but that was my first introduction to it. I knew that most of the veterans there were from World War I, World War II, Korean war, but then we began to get younger veterans at Lyons. That's when I heard about the Vietnam.
Mason Funk: Prior to being drafted, did you have any feelings about whether you were, did you know whether you were going to be drafted? Did you have feelings about what that would mean for your life?
James Credle: I really didn't think about it. All I did was-
Mason Funk: Sorry, start by telling me what you didn't think about.
James Credle: [00:23:00] Okay. I really didn't think about the fact that I may be drafted. I really didn't, it never occurred to me. When it happened, it seemed to me the natural thing to do. I mean, when you get drafted, what else to do except to answer the call? I was working at a hospital where veterans who, that was their thing that they did. They answered the call. There was no one who talked with me about the possibilities of not answering the call or not going into the military and I felt it was my duty to go as well.
Mason Funk: No civil, no conscientious objectors in your sphere in your life?
James Credle: [00:24:00] No conscientious objectors, no idea of avoiding the war. When you're called, and when you're working in a facility that serve veterans, it just seem unconscionable that you would say, okay, I won't go or I won't do this. All of the veterans have done it and it was my time, so that became the natural thing to do. I was supported in that by everyone around me. No one told me that you shouldn't do this or that this is a bad war or anything like that.
Mason Funk: Yeah, and it was early probably.
James Credle: Yeah, it was very early in the war. Also, if I'm not mistaken, Dr. King was the only one who spoke out against that. I think that was later than 1965 when he did.
Mason Funk: Now, speaking of Dr. King, just as a touchstone obviously, what had you heard? How aware were you of, for example, the march on Washington in 1963? How aware were you of the civil rights movement that was bubbling to the surface during these years? Make it clear what you're talking about.
James Credle: [00:25:00] For me, the civil rights era, in my head and in my memory, I have very little remembrance of that happening. All I know is that, at that point, I was working at Lyons. 1962 was when I graduated and 1963 I was working at Lyons hospital. Trying to deal with my life day to day. You have to also, you would also need to know that I was also aware of being gay, but not having an opportunity to act on that in any way. Those things were the things I was personally dealing with, how to stay alive and help my family, and continue to do the work that I was doing, and all of that.
Mason Funk: [00:26:00] Did you hear, I wonder if in the time, if you heard people say things like, essentially saying, "Look, it's better not to rock the boat. It's not that bad." In other words, kind of questioning whether there was wisdom to clamoring for civil rights. Did you ever hear anybody voice that opinion?
James Credle: [00:27:00] Growing up in North Carolina at that time, there was always the sense of not rocking the boat. That was the main feeling that I retained when I was in church, when I was in the community, or even when I went out and then find those signs around me. It was not about challenging any of that. This was our status in life. Even though I was personally questioning, why was this only for us and why was I viewed in this negative way when I didn't even know the people who were treating me this way. Those kinds of issues, as far as acting out and to do something about it, it was not in the spirit of my community, or the spirit of my family, or the spirit of where we were at the time to do anything like that. It just wasn't.
Mason Funk: Great, okay. Now take us to Vietnam. I know from having read about you that it was very pivotal. I just wonder if you could give us an overview of, and then we'll go a little deeper, but kind of give us an overview of how your experiences in Vietnam, how you experienced Vietnam.
James Credle: [00:28:00] First of all, when I was drafted, I was drafted here in New Jersey and I went to Fort Lee and was mustered into the military, that was, to me, the natural thing to do. I went through the basic training. Then at basic training, you go to advanced training. At the level of advanced training, my commander officer called us into his office and he asked a group of us if we wanted to be medics. I never thought of it at the time, but later on, I questioned why did he pick these group of people who, like me, became medics? Why did he pick us to ask us about being a medic? Then when I thought about it, I'd say, "Well, I worked at the veterans hospital. Maybe they had that in my record. It would be a natural thing." When he asked me that question, I said yes, I will be a medic. We went through training in Fort Devens, Massachusetts for medic training, being a medic in the military.
We also learned that we were probably going to Santo Domingo for riot control. They started training us as medics in how to deal with situations where you're in a riot control kind of arena and what kinds of things you need to be prepared to do. One day, the commanding officers called us all together and said, "No, we're not being trained any more for riot control or to go to Santo Domingo. We are being trained and will be trained to fight in the jungles of Vietnam." That shifted all of our training into fighting jungle warfare.
Mason Funk: Let me interrupt you. Where was Santo Domingo and what was going on there at the time?
James Credle: Santo Domingo, I didn't know what was happening at the time, but I understand that it was the regime there was under attack and we were supporting the regime who was in power. That was one of the things that they were preparing to do is send our military there to help out.
Mason Funk: Got you, okay. Then they switched you, they reoriented your training, and they trained you to go into the jungles of Vietnam.
James Credle: [00:31:00] The irony of it though, we were in Fort Devens. Fort, not Devens, we were in Fort Devens, Massachusetts and we went up to Camp Drum, New York. I don't know if you're aware of Camp Drum, that area in April is like winter. It was stupid to us that they would have us up there training for jungle warfare when you have snow on the ground and all of that stuff that we were dealing with. We were being trained in a area for jungle warfare with snow on the ground. It was kind of a stupid thing, but we were in the military. We were following orders, so that's what we did. We went to, that was in April. Then in July, we were on a boat to Vietnam.
Mason Funk: Okay. Start kind of fresh and say, "In July, 1960 ... "
James Credle: 1966.
Mason Funk: Okay. Start there. In July ...
James Credle: [00:32:00] July, 1966, we were on our way to Vietnam. Took us 30 days to go by boat. Our unit was unique in that it was the first time that all of the entities of one unit was trained in the same place. That's why, in a lot of ways, it was stupid to us, but it was, it made sense to the military because they were attempting to do something with the 19, I was with the 196th light brigade. We were one of the first entities to be trained where all of the artillery, the mortars, the medics, the infantry all trained in one area. That was the first time that they were attempting to do that and then we all got on the boat to go to Vietnam. That was the first time that was ever done.
Mason Funk: What was the reasoning behind that?
James Credle: [00:33:00] It was some kind of new military idea that they came up with, that the unit is more cohesive if they train from the beginning and not be ... Most of the medics used to go to Fort Houston in Texas for training and then they would bring them into a unit where they were going to be stationed. This was a different process and a different way of doing it.
Mason Funk: Maybe they thought you would, I don't know, be a better medic if you were caring for guys that you actually knew.
James Credle: Yep, all of that was part of it, I think.
Mason Funk: I guess it kind of makes sense.
Mason Funk: Describe, if you would, what your work was essentially like once you arrived in Vietnam as a medic, how much action you saw, I guess a sense of how much trauma and injury and death you saw. Just paint a picture for us, if you would, of what your experience in the war was like.
James Credle: [00:34:00] Well, first, when we got off the boat in Vietnam, what was astonishing to me was that we were in a war zone, but we were met by women with leis and all of that to greet us with music playing and all of that. They had told us not to cock our weapons or have any rounds in our weapon, but that's how we were greeted. That was the first thing. Which was surprising to me, you're in a war zone and you'll be greeted in a situation where people are welcoming you like that. I'd never fought in a war before but I didn't expect that.
The next thing was that as the, I was with medic headquarters company, and as part of headquarters company, all of our medics were assigned to different units, A, B, C, D. Artillery, but I was assigned to headquarters, which meant that with the headquarters unit, you had several medics who would then, if something happened to any one of the individual medics in the individual units, they would take their place. In headquarters company when I got there, I was the one chosen to go out with the 25th infantry, to go with them to see what it was like on an S and D mission. S and D is search and destroy mission in Vietnam, in the jungles of Vietnam.
My first time out, I got my litter. I got my bag of medical gear, which is a big black bag that you have on your back. The litter and my helmet with the cross on it for indicating that I was a medic. And I stood in line as the lieutenant came by me and asked me, "What in the F are you doing, soldier?" What he meant by that and what he telling me was that medics don't carry their litter. They don't carry that black bag. And they certainly don't carry a helmet with a star on it indicating who you are. You got to look just like the rest of the soldiers, so that was the first lesson I learned that I had to take back to my unit. Is that you got to find a way, take less underwear, less socks, but make sure that your medical bag contains all the stuff that you'd need plus your personal items. You got to look just like the other soldiers as much as you can. You cannot stand out in any way.
And I later learned that one of the things that the Vietnamese, that our intelligence found out, was that the Vietnamese who we were fighting against, any soldiers that we were fighting against, they targeted the medic, the radioman, and the sergeant, or not the sergeant but the lieutenant who was heading up a unit. Because if you hit either one of those three people, you can cripple the unit. That was their goal. That was the first lesson I learned about S and D missions.
S and D missions, everything after that was more than traumatic. It was life changing in the sense that the experience of going on S and Ds, and having someone shot, or being hit with a mortar, and as a medic, you hear the call, "Medic!" And you've got to run whenever you hear that call. Usually it's to the front of the line. Usually when you get there, you always find someone in serious medical situation as far as being shot or being hit by a mortar. That was my experience for the year that I was there.
When I was out with the unit, and in a fire fight, often times it was not just one person who was hit, it was often several people who were hit. Because I was with the unit where we knew each other, I often was taking care of guys who were asking me to please don't let them die or I was seeing people being carried on a litter, some of them that I had shared a joke with the night before, and there was nothing I could do to save them. That's what most of my year in Vietnam was about, was going on S and D missions, trying to take care of the guys who were hit, knowing that I saved some, but also knowing there were many, many more that I couldn't save or that we couldn't save.
Mason Funk: Take a breath. I'm so sorry. So sorry for dredging up those memories.
James Credle: [00:42:00] Thank you, but it helps to talk about it. I am finally into PTSD therapy now after waiting 50 years. I'm now getting my own one on one counseling around therapy for PTSD, when most of my life has been trying to help other veterans who were having a lot more difficulties than I am having around the trauma of the war.
Mason Funk: You weren't as bad off and you could help others, but you didn't necessarily take the time to deal with your own trauma?
James Credle: [00:43:00] That was my work and I thought I was dealing with my trauma by helping others. Perhaps I was, but I really, I just started seeing a therapist in June. That was the first thing that she said to me. Because I was in Vietnam in 1966 and her first comment to me was, "That was next month," which would be July of '66, of 2016. That was 50 years ago. You've been taking care of everybody, so now I'm going to be here for you.
There's a couple things about that being in war that I need to mention. One is that in 1967, just shortly before I came home, I was watching the 1967 riots of Newark, or we call it the rebellion of Newark, on television in Vietnam while we were doing S and D missions. So often people have said to me was, why didn't you, or did you ever think about protesting the war while you were there, or anything like that. I'm sure that some of the veterans did or some of the soldiers did, but-
Mason Funk: I'll have to get that. If you wouldn't mind start, people have asked you if you ...
James Credle: [00:46:00] Yeah. People have asked me about why did I not or did I ever do any, take any anti-war stance while I was in Vietnam. And my simple answer to that is, when someone is shooting at you, you don't take the time to ask them why they're shooting or why are you shooting at them. You try to stay alive so that perhaps you can, in some other way at some other time, deal with that. It doesn't make sense that they would think that I would, because we were in a civil war. We were not in a war that had a certain, where you had an opportunity, where there was a line drawn and that you could go across that line and be relatively safe. In civil war, there is no such thing as a line of demarcation where on one side you have friends, and on the other side you have enemy because we were engaged in a civil war.
What a lot of people don't know is that there were less desertions in war, in the Vietnam war, than at any other war in our history. The reason for that is simple when you think about it. When you think about the fact that American soldiers were in Germany, or in Europe, and that was where most of them came from. If they wanted to desert, they could easily hide among the countrymen that they were living with or were apart of. Where in Vietnam, they didn't have that choice.
Mason Funk: You started by talking about being in Vietnam and watching the rebellion of Newark on TV. What was your thought? What was your experience of that?
James Credle: Just how our-
Mason Funk: Sorry, start by saying-
James Credle: I'm sorry. I'm sorry.
Mason Funk: That's all right.
James Credle: [00:48:00] Watching the tanks on Avon Avenue, which is now Irvine Turner Boulevard, watching those tanks go down that street where my aunt and uncle lived was traumatic for me because I was wondering. The first thing I thought about was, how are they? Are they okay? I did learn from my family that they were okay. They had gotten out of the city and had essentially moved where they eventually lived when I got back. That was in Somerset, New Jersey. They had moved to Somerset, New Jersey during that time. So I was very pleased that they were able to get out, but it was just the idea that, here I am fighting here, but seeing the tanks roll down the streets of Newark. Again, it's a feeling of hopelessness or helplessness. What can I do? I can't help them here. I can't help that situation here. The best thing is for me to do what I can to survive.
Mason Funk: [00:49:00] Yeah. Again, thank you for taking us through that. I hope your therapy continues to be good for you. I think one thing people don't understand, I interviewed a woman in Denver for this project who was very involved in anti-war protests in college but her brother was in Vietnam. People couldn't understand how she could be opposed to the war and yet love her brother. I don't know if you have any insight on that, but maybe, you've already talked about how, when you're at war, war takes over. I guess the question I have is, when you came home having experienced what you experienced, and learned that much of America was, or some people in America were very much against the war, what was your experience coming home in terms of being a returning soldier from Vietnam?
James Credle: It was sudden, for one thing, because... I'm sorry.
Mason Funk: It's okay.
James Credle: [00:51:00] Coming home, coming back from Vietnam was sudden, for one thing. I was on an S and D mission and we had moved from Tây Ninh Province, which is south of Saigon, and we had moved to an area further north called, it wasn't Da Nang. Hold on, I'm having a block now. Anyway, we had moved up to an area near the South China Sea. When we got there the first day, two of the soldiers who, two of our, we lost two soldiers because they were swimming in the South China Sea and there was an undertow that took them out. There were several soldiers that got caught in the undertow and we lost two soldiers. It was always ironic to me, again, that we would love the first, after moving from Saigon and Tây Ninh where all of this loss was, and then to move to this other area, Chu Lai it's called. To move to Chu Lai and to find that we lose two soldiers, not to the war, but to the water of the ocean. It just was one of those things that, just how crazy stuff is sometimes.
Coming home, I was in an S and D mission one day. I was told that I was being mustered out of the military. I got on a helicopter, went to my unit, packed, and the next day I was on a plane to, actually, San Francisco, where I would get my final mustering out and given a ticket for a plane ride to Newark. Within 48 hours, I was in a war situation to the streets of Newark. I went to my sister, I was living with my sister before I left, so I went back to her to stay there with her. Fortunately, I didn't get what other veterans got when they came home, in the sense they were called baby killers and all that stuff, and people protesting them. I didn't get any of that. In a way, I was fortunate.
For me personally, that year of getting away from Vietnam and being in just before I decided I would go to Rutgers, that year from 1967 to 1968, I don't have any memories of thinking even about the war, in that sense of protesting it. I had survived it, I was home, and I was glad to be home. But what happened while I was in Vietnam, I began to think about ways of dealing with that. That is that a friend of mine and I were very close. We went on "R&R" to Tokyo, Japan together. And I had my first sexual relationship with a man. So that dominated everything that I could think about about my life. It wasn't about Vietnam. It was about this understanding of I could, or how to find a place in this world where, as a gay person.
Hal was married. He had wanted me to move to upstate New York, Buffalo, New York, to be near him in this situation where he would be married and kind of have me off to the side. I wasn't having any of that, so we broke up. I didn't spend, when I returned home to the US, I didn't have any relationship that I was contemplating or even thought of. I ended up going back to my job at the Lyons Veteran Hospital and taking care of veterans there. There were more and more veterans from Vietnam coming into Lyons. I spent some time working with them as much as I could.
Mason Funk: Okay. Do you want to take a break? You can maybe start dumping that card.
Kate Kunath [00:56:00] I'm going to dump the card at our next place.
Mason Funk: Oh, okay. All right. Do you want to take a little break at all? Stretch, drink some water at all, or do you want to just kind of keep going?
James Credle: I'm fine if you are.
Mason Funk: Okay. Yeah, I'm good. One thing I read that you had written, I'm not sure where, was you wrote that ... This is kind of a more general topic. You wrote that the protests of the 1960s allowed many different types of people to be next to each other in positive ways. I wonder if that resonates with you still. I think that might be something interesting to talk about. How, in spite of all the insanity that was going on in the 1960s, and the heartache, and the trauma, and the loss, and the disintegration of society, that that might have been a silver lining. Does that resonate with you?
James Credle: [00:57:00] Yeah, in lots of ways, because the next phase of my life actually-
Mason Funk: Just start by saying, "After Vietnam ... "
James Credle: [00:58:00] Yeah. After Vietnam, the next phase of my life began when I started Rutgers. My first year at Rutgers, I met Nick who became my lover/partner for 11 years. We were on the basketball team at Rutgers together. Within, after I had graduated from Rutgers, I immediately started, even while I was at Rutgers, I was working in the Office of Veterans Affairs. For me to, and working in the Office of Veterans Affairs, it was more working to help veterans. I did not see myself in a role of protesting the war. We're going to school, and working part-time, and playing basketball, that took everything, every amount of energy or thought that I had.
Then after graduating, I went to law school at Rutgers for a semester. In the second semester, I had decided that I would not be a lawyer. I could not be a lawyer. I became director of the Office of Veterans Affairs. I was hired to be the director because the guy that I was working for decided to move to Puerto Rico. I put in for the job and Dean Faulstich, who was a supporter in all of that, hired me to be the director of the office. That began my work with, my major work with working with veterans. Not only with veterans that we were attempting to bring to Rutgers and to assist those who were there to get their GI Bill benefits, but to also work with veterans around issues that other veterans groups were not working on.
That was the impact of the war on minorities, because a lot of veterans and minority veterans were given bad paper during the Vietnam era. Even though we fought hard through trying to get President Carter to expand his amnesty for those who left the country, we tried to get them to have that amnesty include veterans with bad paper because we felt that it was unfair that these white guys mostly who went to other countries were given a break and you can't give a break to veterans who were of color who went to the military. Because they, in their own way, were protesting, they get bad paper and you don't give them a break. The bad paper is a lifetime experience.
Mason Funk: Can you define what bad paper means?
James Credle: Less than honorable discharge.
Mason Funk: Okay, just start fresh by saying, "Bad paper ... "
James Credle: Bad paper is a less than honorable discharge. What that means, you do not get any veterans benefits at all, none for housing, none for education, and you're viewed as a bad person. When you go try to get hired and the people learn that you got a less than honorable discharge, they automatically think of you as a bad person and a bad risk. A lot of those guys aren't able to get that remedied in any way.
Mason Funk: [01:01:00] What were the kinds of things that could get you a less than honorable discharge?
James Credle: At that time, it was some things, believe it or not, that was as crazy as veterans who decided that they would wear a Afro and not wear their hair cut short.
Mason Funk: Do me a favor, I'm sorry. I have to stop you and start you again. "During that time, a soldier could get a less than honorable discharge or a bad paper for," and then give me a little bit of a laundry list.
James Credle: [01:02:00] Okay. During that time, veterans who got a less than honorable discharge could get that designation for things like having, not cutting their hair, like deciding that they want to wear an Afro while they were in the military. They would wear an Afro and their commanding officer would see that as being disobeying an order and they would, again, be given an less than honorable discharge. There were things like, believe it or not, homosexual tendencies, which I don't know what that means. There was some veterans were given that. Not having their boots and their clothing, their boots shine and their clothing in condition that was viewed as Army ready, when after they had served in Vietnam and then got back home, and they decided that all that stuff about spit shine and all of that no longer applied. A lot of that stuff was going on.
When you look at the record, it's like 800,000 bad paper discharges were given out and most of them were to minority veterans.
Mason Funk: [01:03:00] It was like the military-
James Credle: [01:04:00] What people don't know and haven't quite put it all together about the military, the military, perhaps not now, but certainly during that time, is composed, was composed mainly of middle management. Which means the sergeant, some of the lieutenants, but most of the sergeants and the staff sergeants, and upper level sergeants who are the middle manager, are career oriented whites from the south. You get this explosion of veterans being drafted or soldiers being drafted are from inner city north or from inner city south or inner city all over. You have this conflict going on. And in Vietnam, there was, I never witnessed it, but there were, I have heard soldiers tell me that they have actually fragged someone. Which means they killed their own because they were acting inappropriate toward them. That happened in Vietnam, and a lot of it had to do with this conflict of soldiers from middle management from the south and the lower level everyday grunt people from the north. They were mostly of color and the middle management is mostly white southerners.
Mason Funk: It's just a recipe for-
James Credle: It's a recipe for 800,000 discharges, less than honorable discharges.
Mason Funk: Wow.
James Credle: Which those soldiers who get them can do very little about.
Kate Kunath Can I just interject?
Mason Funk: Sure.
Kate Kunath [01:05:00] Can you summarize? Because I think one of the most infuriating things about this is that they let them fight a war, and then at the end, they give them a dishonorable discharge. If I'm understanding you right, they don't make that distinction until they've already done their duty and then they go home. Then they find out that they've been dishonorably discharged.
James Credle: [01:06:00] What happened a lot of the times was that, when you do your year, if you were drafted, you do your year. A lot of people did their year but they had time remaining. They would have to come back to the states and stay for three or four months, or maybe even a year and serve honorably, what they viewed as honorably before they are discharged. In that process of that second phase of their time in the military, that's when that happened. It was not so much that they were given the bad discharges overseas during the war. They were given the bad discharges when they got home and they had that extra time when they could wear their hair or when they thought they could. You're still obligated to be, and that's why a lot of them said to me when we were talking with them about this, a lot of them said, "I'd rather be in Vietnam." They would rather have gone back to Vietnam than to be at home because of the stuff that they had to deal with.
Mason Funk: Wow. This is like a whole chapter, I feel like, of the Vietnam experience that hasn't been ... People always focus on what happened in Vietnam.
James Credle: [01:07:00] People don't talk about it. They don't know about it. I learned more about it because I worked with the Vietnam Generation Ministries of the National Council of Churches. I worked with them. I ran a program called Veterans in Prison, that was the other thing that happened. Veterans who got bad discharges often ended up in prison. We worked with the prison project, there was a prison project. I took a year off Rutgers and I worked for a year with the Vietnam Generation Ministries working with 23 projects around the nation of veterans in prison. The idea was these veterans in prison who are doing, they form veterans groups in prison and we were doing what we could to help them while they in prison to do better so they can get out and go be productive citizens in their communities.
That was a group also that I mentioned, when I mentioned working with President Carter, the Vietnam Generation Ministry, that was how I got to spend time and why I know so much about what happened with the Carter administration because I spent some time working with them and was part of their core group of people who argued this with some of the people who worked with President Carter at the time.
Mason Funk: Would you say, were you able to affect policy in any ways that felt satisfying to you?
James Credle: [01:08:00] The only policy ... No, I've never, because it would never be as wide-reaching. You needed a major level and that meant the president or Congress to enact this. Congress definitely would not have acted. I don't think even a democratic Congress would have enacted anything like that. It needed something like President Carter, which he did, again, he did for people who avoided the war but not for veterans. That's what I would be angry about. That's what I'm angry about. That's what I would be upset about. You could do this, and it's continued to really expose the nature of white supremacy, you know? You have whites who go to Canada and they are allowed to come back, and that's fine. You have guys who are black and of color in the military, they go in the military, do their service, and then they're given a bad discharge, and you going to say, "Hey guys, come on back. You're fine." But, "Guys, no, we can't do that for you." That's the nature of white supremacy.
Working with veterans in prison, what we did, one of the things that I was able to work with is the Rutgers law school. There is a process by which you can go through a judicial review in order to get your discharge upgraded. I formed a core group of students at Rutgers who worked with our drop-in center where we have veterans who got bad discharges. We would get the paperwork. The reason why I got them involved was I told them that you're working with a client, you have laws and everything that you need to know about. You need to follow, you argue your case, and it's real because you're affecting someone's life.
They were able to get some of our veterans discharge upgraded through that process. We didn't ever lose a case. There were not a lot of cases, like 14 or 15 over a 6 or 7 year history, which doesn't seem like much. But it is a lot for these veterans who are now gotten their discharge upgraded. They can get their GI Bill benefits. They can get their home loans issued. They can become a citizen who can say, "I have an honorable discharge and I can get a job."
Mason Funk: Wow. I can only imagine for those 14 or 15, the huge difference it made.
James Credle: [01:11:00] Yeah, it made a difference. It made a difference. The thing that I didn't know much about prisons and prison life, but that year going around the country, from upstate New York to Portland, Oregon, I went through projects down south and in between. Met veterans in prison who were doing things to try to better their lives and working with them. I also began to see very clearly that, from the east coast to down south, it's mostly black and some Hispanics. As you move west, it becomes more Hispanics, less black. Those are the dominant people who were in prison, in our nation's prisons. Because I would go there and I would physically see it. That's when I learned about the impact of prison. Michelle Alexander wrote a wonderful book about it, but I saw that years ago in my work with Vietnam veterans. We were only working with veterans in prison.
I also went to Louisiana and I love going there because I learn how to make gumbo from a brother who was in prison and who is Louisiana state prison, Angola, and I learned to make gumbo. He showed me the secret to making good gumbo. That was nice.
Mason Funk: There is a silver lining there as well.
Kate Kunath Can I ask a question real quick?
Kate Kunath Is it the same with Iraq and Afghanistan now since there hasn't been anything, has there not been anything put in place that changes that situation from Vietnam with the dishonorable discharges and the impact on minority lives?
James Credle: [01:13:00] When it comes to current day Iraq and Afghanistan, to tell you the truth, I don't know very much about it. I'm just beginning to learn much more about it. But I think the whole climate, what I was talking about was the climate of the military in the '60s. It's evolved over time so that climate doesn't exist in the same way. Middle management is not necessarily white southerners any more, so you won't have that dynamic coming out. You have more veterans of different kinds of races rather than mostly black and Hispanics, but different kinds of races, even gay now, which makes a difference. It's all about the climate. What climate do you have in this environment? The climate has changed and that makes it possible for things to be better as far as bad discharges are concerned.
Mason Funk: This was, when you think about it, such a particular war that happened at a particular time, right at the same time that the civil rights movement was beginning but of course, enormous resistance and essentially a system that had been in place for 400 years changing maybe just the tiniest degree. Everything else was still in place. It was like a powder keg, I'd imagine.
Mason Funk: [01:14:00] A perfect storm.
James Credle: Yeah. It's not being talked about or not being understood.
Mason Funk: It's just still not. It's not being-
James Credle: No. No.
Mason Funk: I just don't want to leave that point un-addressed. When you say it's not being talked about, what needs to happen to understand? Where do we need to go with this particular issue?
James Credle: [01:15:00] For me, I've been pushing myself to write my own book but I will be writing a book, but I won't be concentrating a lot on this. I will probably talk a little bit about it. I'm not so engaged with veterans stuff as I used to be. I don't have the group that I used to work with. We formed the group called the National Association for Black Veterans. These were our issues. We were not the VFW. We were not the American Legion. We were not these mostly white, older veterans group who were only after their self-interest. We realized that veterans of color were getting the shaft or not getting a good deal. We were doing what we could to raise those issues and never got the support of those kinds of groups around these issues.
It takes a lot of energy and a lot of work. I put my energy more and more into, as time progressed in my life, to saving people from HIV. That became my new work. After Vietnam, it became HIV/AIDs, and that's continued to be my work right now. I haven't gone back to the veterans stuff.
James Credle: I will be doing some of that but not that.
Mason Funk: [01:16:00] I knew, of course, that that was the next big story to talk about, was your work. You come back and you have about a decade of working with veterans and then HIV comes on the scene in the early '80s. Maybe you can talk us through those first days, weeks, months of HIV when you first heard about it and just your personal experience of what the very beginning of HIV/AIDS was like? We were at, I guess, the early days of the AIDS epidemic.
James Credle: [01:17:00] Yeah, okay. Where to begin? I began in 1979 when I broke up with my partner, Nick, after 11 years. In 1979, I went to, my barber told me about this group called Black and White Men Together in New York. I went to, I was supposed to meet him. He didn't show up but I went anyway. Kind of going to a group for the first time, kind of eased my way into the group and felt so welcome and so much a part of what they were about that I immediately fell in love with the group. In 1979, I met the group Black and White Men Together. Then in 1980, I was one of the people chosen by the group to attend the first national convention of the group in San Francisco. This past July, there are two of us, John Bush and I, who've attended all 36 national conventions.
The group is statement of purpose is against racism, sexism, homophobia, heterosexism, and anti-HIV/AIDS discrimination. We do and have done most of our work early on, particularly, with MACT New York, which is now and some of the groups have changed their name. Black and White Men Together New York became Men of All Colors Together New York. Still mostly black and white, almost all black and white, but it felt more inclusive to include, to be men of all colors instead of, because that's who we were asking to come to be part of this.
What it was and what was so powerful about it, every Friday night, I would catch the subway to New York and attend a CR session where we had black, white, and other men of color usually in a circle, sometimes one on one, talking about these issues of racism or sexism, of homophobia, of heterosexism, and HIV/AIDS. It became HIV/AIDS discrimination later on in 1982 when there became the issue. For 10 years I did that, from 1980 to 1990.
In 1982, a veteran, a friend of mine who works for CUNY system in New York, knew of my work with MACT New York. At that time, it was Black and White Men Together. He knew of my work and his wife's sister's girlfriend had a doctor who worked for NIH, National Institute of Health, in Washington DC, who was looking to do a cohort group around this issue that we had heard about. This, it wasn't HIV. It was this disease that was killing gay men. We signed up. He got in touch with me and I asked 16 of my members. I was also a part of the group. We became part of his study group for around this virus, this killer virus that was in the community. That was my first direct impact with HIV.
My second, and perhaps it wasn't my first because by then we had already experienced some deaths in the group. By 1982, we had already experienced people dying. We had already experienced people getting sick and some of our members getting sick. We had already experienced that no one knew exactly what was happening, except it was happening to mostly gay men. Then it became it was happening because of Haitians. Then it was happening because of black gay men, and all of the craziness around where it was coming from. That was my first experience with HIV.
As far as the national go, the national association, our membership was determined to not become an AIDs organization because they were springing up all over the place. You give a few dollars from the federal government or from the state government and a group comes up and they start working on HIV or working with an issue. HIV was a hot issue at that time. Our group was determined that we should not become an AIDS organization. But coming from members who were mostly of color, we felt it would be unconscionable of us not to have some involvement with this issue that was killing. A lot of it was killing black gay men, when in fact, we knew there were many other groups that had cropped up that was helping and assisting white gays, butblack men all over the country didn't have access unless they were in New York, where you had New York groups. Then in San Francisco, you had the San Francisco AIDS Fund.
We decided, well, Tom Haranand I, Tom later passed from complication of HIV. Tom and I were co-chair. We decided we would allow one of our members who worked with one of the groups down in Washington DC and he had heard about this opportunity coming down the pipe. He had a great ideal around writing a grant that possibly we could get funded from the group. So despite opposition from our membership, Tom and I decided, we might as well take a chance. Let him write the grant. We'll see what happens. We'll argue about it later but let him write the grant.
Anyway, short story is that we got approval for the grant in 1987. Out of it became the National Task Force on AIDS Prevention, which worked primarily with gay men of color all over the nation, headed up by one of our members, Reggie Williams. Also with the assistance of John Teamer, who was the black ... In our group, what I loved about our group, we came up with the concept of power dynamics in a group being one in which you shared power. Each of our officers-
Mason Funk: Do me a favor. Just say, "What I loved about our group," but tell me what group you're talking about.
James Credle: [01:25:00] Oh, sorry. What I love about our group, the National Association of Black and White Men Together, and our local group, Black and White Men Together, that later became Men of All Colors Together, we decided that we should make sure that, in dealing with the power dynamics of a society, that we should have joint leadership. We have a co-chair system. In other words, if you have four, you have a president, or co-chairs. One must be of, if one is of white race, the other one must be of a color. If you have a secretary and treasurer, one of each of them must be from a different race. The idea was shared power in that way and that's how we have operated since we established the group in 1980.
Mason Funk: [01:26:00] I'm going to say something kind of dumb. Here we go. I think that, in my mind, the National Association of Black and White Men Together was always primarily oriented towards black and white couples, interracial relationships. I think a light bulb just went off realizing that it's much broader than that. It wasn't about black men who liked having a white partner or white men who liked having a black partner. It was about black and white men being together. Is that correct?
James Credle: [01:27:00] Truth be told, we cannot, what is it, deny that one of the strongest dynamics is the purely sexual dynamic that goes on around the group. Yes, the group is much more than that. It has been about working on issues that this society has never worked on in terms of bringing people together and say, hey, we're going to work on racism. We're going to work on sexism. We're going to work on homophobia. We're going to work on anti-AIDS discrimination. This is how we're going to do it. Most of our work, as I said, has been CR session. Almost all of our groups have held CRs where we intently talk about the racist dynamic that goes on in our society, where we intensely talk about this notion of the big black dick and what that may mean, or this notion that white men are whatever, whatever the stereotype is. Let's talk about that and let's challenge all of those assumptions.
Of course, working with women. It became, at least for the New York chapter, has been known to be very political in the sense that we've had people like James Baldwin, people like Cheryl Clarke, people like Audre Lorde, people like Bayard Rustin all who were members or were a participant in our group. In fact, JamesBaldwin, we were the first group that he ever spoke to that was gay. MACT New York was the first group that he spoke with as an openly gay man. We've had that kind of understanding of the world and challenges that they present to our society being presented to us in terms of a different way forward, how we can move forward.
Lesbians with color, A Bridge Called My Back. If you haven't read that book, then you should, A Bridge Called My Back, mostly by lesbians of color. That was kind of the bible for us in terms of learning, not only about how to work together as men, but a vision for what we could do to work together in the future.
Mason Funk: Great.
James Credle: It's much more than that. You're right about that. The interesting thing about MACT New York-
Mason Funk: Define that please.
James Credle: Men of All Colors New York.
Mason Funk: [01:29:00] Start fresh please.
James Credle: [01:30:00] The interesting thing about Men of All Colors Together New York is that we have a role, a significant role, in terms of the creation of other groups that were not Black or White that came together, like Asian Americans that came together. The leadership of that was a member of our group and felt that his needs weren't being met by our group, so he formed an Asian American group. There was a Latin man who came to our group. He determined that, "Hey, this is not working for us. Let's get our own group and we'll form our own group." That was what we were encouraging, people to come, understand that we're trying to be open, but if we're not meeting your needs, then we certainly support you in meeting your needs.
It was very powerful because there's bar discrimination was going on in bars in New York. We joined with groups-
Mason Funk: You mean there was, give me a time frame here.
James Credle: Still going on.
James Credle: [01:31:00] We're talking about the '80s now. There was bar discrimination going on in the '80s. It still goes on now where men of color, particularly, are asked to present many more IDs and proof of who you are than any other group. When they try to walk in the door, if you are single or with a group of men of color, they will ask you for ID, but the whites can go right on through. Don't even ask. For instance, with me, since my partners have been white for the most part, when we try to go through it was no problem because I was with a white man so I could go through. He legitimizes me so I can go through.
Anyway, what we did was there was a process done by the NAACP where they did housing discrimination project, where they sent different entities, different people and different entities through housing to see what the response would be. They found that there was discrimination going on through that process. If you sent a black couple, they would say one thing. If you sent a white couple or if you sent an integrated couple, there would always be different kinds of things that are said. They documented that. We did that with the bars. We sent whites through. We sent people of color through. We sent mixed couples through. We documented what happened. Then we brought it, because New York City has a bar discrimination policy, anti-discrimination policy. We brought it to them or we threatened to bring it to them. Most times they would, they changed their policy and they wouldn't do that anymore.
I understand that the possibility is that that's still happening. They do it a little more subtly, but it still happens in bars these days. That was part of our work and part of the work that we are proud of that we did to end discrimination in bars. We shut a couple of bars down through that work.
Mason Funk: Let's go back. I'm aware of the time. We don't have too much time left. I want to talk a bit more about, it's such a huge, huge topic, but how HIV and AIDS disproportionately affected, and how services were disproportionately unavailable to men of color, how that's been a pattern that continues today. I don't even know where to begin with that.
James Credle: [01:33:00] I began in 1990. What happened was that we got a call from, we meaning Men of All Colors Together. I was going to, as I told you, I would go to New York every Friday night for years and I had done it for 10 years. In 1990, we got a call from Patty Pendarvis. Patty Pendarvis was a member of the House of Pendarvis. You're going to have to tell me, "Explain what houses are, right?"
Mason Funk: You don't have to explain.
James Credle: I don't have to explain?
Mason Funk: No.
James Credle: Oh, you understand it? Oh, you know what houses are, good for you.
Mason Funk: I know a little bit.
James Credle: [01:34:00] Okay. Anyway, Patty Pendarvis was from the House of Pendarvis. She called and asked if we would send someone to Newark. She would set up a bar where we would go and do a safer sex messaging for the people that she worked with in the houses and people in the community. Since I was from Newark, Eric Perez and I, Eric was one of our members at the time. We came to Newark and we did a safer sex messaging for them. At that point, I decided it doesn't make sense for me to go to New York every Friday night. Because I am with a white group, we get all of this information, or we with a group that has whites in it, we get all this information about HIV and go seven miles across the river, and nothing is available for the people in Newark. Is there something that I can do about it?
I had a friend, Barbara Ford, who works at the Newark Community Health Centers. Barbara and I got together and we wrote a grant. The grant became Project Fire. I have a book that I'll show you. The grant became Project Fire. Project Fire was a HIV/AIDS prevention, “hot, horny, healthy for men,” “wet, wild, well for women,” in which we talk about ways that people can have safer sex. That was in 1990. In 1992, we also started the Fire Ball. The Fire Ball was a, the houses have competition which they call balls. We called it the Fire Ball because we also had categories within the Fire Ball where the houses would compete for presenting a safer sex message in the context of the ballroom scene.
The first one that we had was in April, no it wasn't April, February of 1992. There was a snowstorm and I couldn't believe that we would still have this ball. They kept telling me the children will show up, the children will show up. About 8:00, there were very little. At 9:00, there was very little. At 11:00, the place had about 800 people in there in the middle of a snowstorm. They did their thing and it was really, really wonderful. Since then, we did 10 Fire Balls from 1992 to 2002. We had over a thousand people at each ball, except for the first one when we had the snowstorm. The idea was bringing out people from the community to be a part of this. What made it unique was we got all of the houses together to work together around doing this one ball. The houses usually are in competition with each other, but what was unique about the Fire Ball was the houses came together and they all presented this. That was our work and has been our work around getting the HIV hot, horny, healthy message out. That you must have safer sex.
Now, as time passed, it became more and more federal and state funding available, not for prevention but for services for those who are infected. As a result, you have less and less monies available for prevention. Therefore, less and less opportunity to have people, especially the current young, new folks to the community, who know nothing about safer sex, be engaged with the safer sex messages at an early age so they will know what to do, when to do, how to do, or be given the opportunity to know what to do, when to do, how to do.
Mason Funk: [01:38:00] In addition, now we have this new reality on the scene, Prep and Truvada. I can only imagine that this information and this possible form of prevention is very disproportionately distributed.
James Credle: Yeah, because of the costs, because of the money. It's always been because of the costs, because of the money.
Mason Funk: Talk about that.
James Credle: [01:39:00] For us, it's knowing that Newark has, most of the people in Newark come from a very poor background. Therefore, the people that we work with will tend to be poor and disadvantaged. We do all that we can to make it as easy as we can for access. One of the problems continues to be that access is not available at a level that is readily and easily accessible to people who need it. That has been a issue and continues to be an issue for HIV/AIDS prevention in poor communities.
I will never forget one thing that one of my friends said at a meeting when I was going to an HIV hot, horny workshop. What he said was the one of the more difficulties in working with people from poor community that one must understand is that when you have a person from a poor background and you're telling them to think about how they have sex, when they have sex, and where they have sex, you're taking away the one freedom that they felt that they had because of their economic condition. The one thing that they could do is, I have my body. Now you're telling them that you don't even have that. That becomes a more complicated issue when you talk with people of color and people who are from a poor background.
At the same time, there was another thing that a youth told me that I will never forget. That is, oftentimes you hear from men of color particularly, at least I have heard it from men of color particularly, is that oh, the condom is too tight, or it doesn't work, or it's too ... First, we blow it up and show them that it's like a balloon. If it's too tight, what are you saying? The second thing that he said is the most important thing is that, "I don't know how to have sex without a condom. My mother told me that whenever I have sex, I would always use a condom. I started off using a condom, so it's never been an issue for me because I've always used one." Those are two things that I always remember in doing safer sex work, is the issue of the economic condition and the fact of use of a condom. That if you start out using one, you will never know what it's like not to use one.
Mason Funk: Right. Wow. I can't help thinking that we talked about Vietnam and the discrimination that so profound there, racial discrimination and how that affected so many hundreds of thousands of black lives and then disproportionate services around HIV/AIDS for people of color, kind of the systematic, as you've been saying, treating of people of color as having less value. They can go fight our wars because they're less valuable. We can lose greater numbers of them to HIV/AIDS because they're less valuable. I don't know what to say about this, but I wonder what your overall message would be about this systematic devaluing.
James Credle: [01:42:00] The message is, when I cried before, it has to do with the deep pain that I feel around loss. It actually began from the moment that I understood about racism in Carolina, dehumanization of blacks in that setting, and in that time, and in that place, and how our lives are devalued and then to experience Vietnam and to see again that our lives are devalued and then to have HIV and see our lives as devalued. If you look at the cumulative, to me, we've lost three generations of young black lives. That's my pain. That's my pain.
Just a sense that someone can tell you, "I see your humanity." That's all it takes. I can see you are another human being just like me. To see people like Donald Trump come on the scene and see people accepting all of the bullshit that he's talking about, it just tells me we got so much further to go as a nation. We got so much further to go as a nation.
Mason Funk: Kate, do you have any more questions before we wrap up?
I'm interested in the sort of belief or hope that the gay community, that maybe the gay community is like the best frontline for dealing with racism. There is, in my mind there is some hope for that. There has been some hope for that in certain periods and circumstances in my life looking at it. Then I see, and that will sometimes turn around on me, and I'll realize that the gays aren't any better off, that the community, the gay community still struggles with racism in their own way. It's like there's no, there really is no safe space from it. I just wonder if you have sort of a deeper notion that the gay community is perhaps the best frontline or where you think that best frontline is. Where do you think that racism is, where is the best place to work on that or to move on that and make improvements? Which communities our best equipped to deal with that, do you think?
James Credle: [01:48:00] When I started working on issues of my sexuality and that really began when I joined the MACT New York, prior to going over to MACT, I would try to go to gay groups in New Jersey or gay groups that I knew around in New York. I was very disappointed because I always felt that they were not dealing with my issues or didn't see me as being a part of an issue that they could see as a priority. On the other hand, my first husband was Dutch and I met him in 1982 at a NABWMT convention in Washington. He worked with the International Association of Lesbian and Gays. I found them to have a refreshing kind of concept of, although they were in Europe, they spend a lot of time making note of the issues that was happening in South America, in Africa, in other parts of the world that was affecting gay people. And that didn't seem to be the case for US gays. It's always been centered around what's happening here in America and not really having a worldview.
Also, wanted to very much stay to the script. The script being it is about LGBTQ rights, not it is about human rights with LGBTQ being our focus. I think that that's the difference.
Mason Funk: Hold for one thought, there's just a siren. Hold that thought though please. Okay.
James Credle: That was always, again, that was very disappointing to me because I felt an affinity for-
Mason Funk: Sorry, I thought the siren was going away. It's coming closer. My bad.
James Credle: That's okay.
James Credle: [01:50:00] There was an affinity for dealing with issues, a broader set of issues. One of them being like, we worked very closely with the international gay community around what was going on with Simon Nkoli in South Africa. We wrote letters and everything to support him as being an openly gay man in prison with the ANC. The results of that was something that was very clear to us in the sense that when Simon got out and when the ANC rose to power, they made sure that LGBT rights was a part of the constitution of the new South Africa. That was mainly because of Simon's work with them. What happened was that Simon told them of our, he shared letters that we sent him while he was in prison with ANC members. They began to see him as well as other gay people in a different light, that we also we care about people and their humanity. It wasn't just for us as being, oh, they see that as being, you're only interested in sex, not interested in humanity.
That's been my disappointment as far as it goes with working with whites who are not, who don't put humanity up front in the gay community. My sense is that what hurts that, I hate to put it this way but I'm going to put it out there anyway. At some level, white supremacy is in the DNA of America. Unless we, even as gay people, unless we struggle to put another way of looking at the world up front and understand that in everything we do, we've got to examine, where does white supremacy fit into this? And If it does, how do we rip it out? Unless we do that consciously, we're going to subconsciously always include that because it's part of our DNA. That's my problem. That's why I see that the real hope, I think, happens when all of America decides we can get a president, or a Congress, or both to come together and say, "Okay, all of America, let's have a dialogue around race, a real dialogue around race and its impact on our society." That's when we can have other kinds of dialogues about discrimination that hits at the heart of what the real issue is.
Because I think that when you grow up in a society that has become, in a lot of ways, the biggest, the boldest, the richest ever in history and that's what we represent, and it's built on the backs of slaves, and we can't even talk about that. We can't even talk about that. We're still in denial about that. That if it weren't for slavery, US would not be the rich country and the most powerful, most bold that it is because all of that came out of having slaves and having the ability to build an economy without the cost that goes with it because of slavery. We can't even deal with that as an issue, again, until we can understand that it's part of our DNA and not work consciously all the time to deal with that, then we won't have success. That's my problem with why the LGBT community won't, as a whole. That's why we won't be able to either, because we can't even as a whole, we can't even as a gay community, we can't even acknowledge that as well.
Mason Funk: [01:54:00] Right. Yeah, everybody just seems to want to kind of say, oh, we're going to just, we're going to be different but without doing the work required to be different. I see that time and time again. I can never forget in South Africa, of course, they have this whole truth and reconciliation process which they went through. I just don't believe we've ever done that. Now I don't know. I hope from your lips that it's not too late, but I many times feel like the moment for that to happen is in our rear-view mirror. I don't know whether we can still, the resistance to having that happen now is so powerful.
Mason Funk: All right, we have to wrap up. I have four final questions and these are intended to be sort of short-ish answers if you can. One is, as a gay man to a young person or a middle-aged person or an old person who is just about to come out, in any way, shape, or form, what single piece of guidance or wisdom would you share with that one person?
James Credle: [01:55:00] Find yourself a support. I would suggest to any person that's really coming out these days or come out ever in life, at whatever level you decide to come out, remember that, first of all, coming out is a lifelong process. Just because you come out to one person, doesn't mean that every person that you meet the rest of your life will understand you. Therefore it means that every time you meet another person or be involved with another person, you have to come out again. The second most important part of that is, when you do decide to come out, whatever level you come out at, make sure you have a support system. Don't do it on your own. Don't do it in isolation. Find someone, at least one person at a minimum, that you can go to for support who supports you in whatever you do.
Mason Funk: [01:56:00] Great. It's amazing how many times that support system is what people mention. It's been surprising to me. It's clear that's across the board, don't do it alone. Second question, what is your hope for the future?
James Credle: [01:57:00] For the future? First of all, I hope to get my book written. That's a start. My hope for the future. At this moment right now, I hope that Hillary hasn't done something stupid that we all will regret. She will end up messing up and we will end up having so much trauma around her election. That's the first immediate thing that comes to mind. Because it's just crucial that she be elected this time around.
For me, how do I want to put this? I guess it would be that I'm hoping to work with others to find a way of working with, for now, specifically with empowering our youth here in the city of Newark, and be a support system for them, and find ways of making sure that they know that it's there. Because I think that that's one of the more difficult things. As I said, I think the support system in this area but then finding one. That would be what I would hope that we could do, that we will find a way to maybe clear a support system for our youth.
Mason Funk: Why is it important to you to tell your story?
James Credle: Mainly because I think-
Mason Funk: [01:59:00] Could you incorporate my question?
James Credle: [02:00:00] Okay. I think it's important for me to tell my story because not too often story like mine are being told in a way or in a format that it comes from us or from the individual and not from some image or some assessment by others. That it's important for us to assure that we tell our story as truthfully and openly as possible, but also make it possible for other people like us to tell their story. So many stories get told about us but not by us.
Mason Funk: What, to you, is the importance of a project like OUTWORDS? If you could, mention OUTWORDS in that.
James Credle: [02:01:00] Okay. I think that OUTWORDS is a crucial way of getting stories told to a wider audience and allowing those opportunities for sharing across so many different diverse groups and individuals.
Mason Funk: I'm going to have you start that again, please.
James Credle: Pierre?
Mason Funk: Pierre.
James Credle: Went to the bathroom.
Mason Funk: I was going to say Michelle, Pierre. He came out and we had a little bobble there. If you could just do that one again for me.
Mason Funk: Thank you, I appreciate it. The importance of OUTWORDS.
James Credle: [02:02:00] The importance of OUTWORDS is to make sure that stories that you are telling are being heard across a diverse and encompassing group of individuals and people because these stories aren't, often are not told, often are not heard, often are not seen. It may make a difference in someone's life because people tend to stand up and hear and see more when they hear and see people who look like them, as opposed to others who may present the same kind of thing. But it will not have the heart or the soul that the person who is listening could feel and see when they experience that opportunity.
Mason Funk: Yeah. Okay.

Interviewed by: Mason Funk
Camera: Kate Kunath
Date: August 11, 2016
Location: Home Of James Credle, Newark, NJ